Moscow ready for more talks to end Ukraine standoff

MOSCOW (AFP): Russia held the door open Monday to further talks on resolving its standoff with the West and said some of its military drills were ending, signalling a possible easing of the crisis over Ukraine.

As Western intelligence officials warned Wednesday could mark the start of an invasion, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced on national television the day would be marked as “Unity Day”.

While the comments from President Vladimir Putin and his foreign and defence ministers seemed to offer hope of a de-escalation, the Pentagon said Russian forces on the border with Ukraine were still growing.

“It is a distinct possibility, perhaps more real than ever before, that Russia may decide to proceed with military action, with new Russian forces continuing to arrive at the Ukrainian border,” US State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters Monday.

But Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said they still did not believe Moscow had made a final decision on whether to invade.

During a carefully choreographed meeting with Putin, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said “there is always a chance” to reach an agreement with the West over Ukraine.

Exchanges with leaders in European capitals and Washington showed enough of an opening for progress on Russia s goals to be worth pursuing, he told Putin.

“I would suggest continuing,” Lavrov said in televised remarks. “Fine,” Putin replied.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz visited Kyiv, vowing that Berlin and its Western allies would maintain support for Ukraine s security and independence. He urged Russia to take up “offers of dialogue”.

During a news conference in Kyiv with Zelensky, Scholz said there was “no reasonable justification” for Russia s build-up of troops around Ukraine s borders.

Scholz will visit Moscow on Tuesday.

Ukraine has demanded an urgent meeting with Russia and other members of the pan-European security body, the OSCE, to explain Moscow s troop movements.

–  Nobody wants civil war  –

European leaders have warned that the build-up is the worst threat to the continent s security since the Cold War, with Putin demanding a rollback of Western influence in eastern Europe and a ban on Ukraine joining NATO.

Western allies have prepared what they warn would be a crippling package of economic sanctions in response to any attack, although Moscow has repeatedly said it has no such plans.

Recent Russian military exercises, including with Belarus, where the US said Moscow had dispatched 30,000 troops for more than a week of drills, have caused rising concern.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu told Putin that some of the drills were “ending” and more would end “in the near future”.

In Kyiv, Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleksiy Reznikov hailed “positive” talks with his Belarusian counterpart, saying he had been assured “there are no threats to Ukraine from Belarus”.

US intelligence officials worry that weeks of crisis talks have given Russia the time to prepare a major offensive should Putin decide to attack Ukraine.

On Sunday, Washington warned that Russia was ready to strike at “any moment”.

But on Monday, Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine s Security and Defence Council, said Kyiv did not believe Russia would attack on Wednesday or Thursday.

Near the frontline separating Kyiv-held territory from areas controlled by Moscow-backed insurgents in the east, underprivileged children in the care of church groups were helping with war preparations.

“We are digging trenches that Ukrainian soldiers could quickly jump into and defend in case the Russians attack,” 15-year-old Mykhailo Anopa told AFP.

In Moscow, Russians said they did not want war.

“People in the West do not understand that we are one people,” Pavel Kuleshov, a 65-year-old pensioner, told AFP, referring to Russians and Ukrainians. “Nobody wants a civil war.”

– Scholz to Moscow –

Germany plays a central role in efforts to mediate in eastern Ukraine, where a gruelling conflict with Russian-backed separatists has claimed more than 14,000 lives.

But Berlin s close business relations with Moscow and heavy reliance on Russian natural gas imports have been a source of lingering concern for Kyiv s pro-Western leaders and US President Joe Biden s team.

Scholz has hedged against unequivocally backing Biden s pledge to “bring an end” to Russia s new Nord Stream 2 gas link to Germany.

Brussels will wait for the results of Scholz s Moscow visit, but an emergency summit is “possible” if needed when EU leaders gather in Brussels Thursday, a senior EU official said.

Zelensky repeated during Monday s press conference with Scholz that joining the NATO alliance would guarantee Ukraine s survival.

Ukraine s membership is a sticking point in talks between Russia and the West, which has spurned a demand from Moscow that Kyiv never be admitted to the US-led military bloc.

“We understand that NATO membership would ensure our security and our territorial integrity,” Zelensky said.

A growing number of Western countries are withdrawing staff from their Kyiv embassies and urging their citizens to leave Ukraine immediately.

But departures may be complicated if more airlines stop using Ukranian airspace because of the growing risks.

Ukraine s budget airline SkyUp said European leasing companies were demanding that Ukrainian carriers return their planes to EU airspace within 48 hours.